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Monthly Archives: August 2012

In my house, we have a few Christmas rituals, including a slate of television shows and movies we must watch on or near the holiday.  The shows are sacrosanct; “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “The Grinch.”  The movies have always included such staples as A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott version) and A Christmas StoryIt’s a Wonderful Life tends to be seen bi-annually, and it can be watched at Thanksgiving.  The most recent additions have been Elf and, of course, that holiday heartwarmer, Die Hard

My boy and I gave A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas its audition.  Harold and Kumar are much funnier than Cheech and Chong, and in this third installment of their stoner oeuvre, a baby gets stoned, does coke, and ecstacy; Neil Patrick Harris attempts to pleasure himself on an unsuspecting chorus girl who he is massaging (the joke? Doogie’s Howser’s homsexuality is really just a ruse to take advantage of vulnerable women); the 3D is used mostly for the shooting of bodily fluids at the screen; Harold gets his penis stuck to a cold pole ala’ A Christmas Story; and then he shoots Santa in the head.

Let’s just say it’s on the bubble.

Riveting, though a little soulless, this dystopian thriller mixes some Lord of the Flies with Logan’s Run and The Running Man.  It is anchored by Jennifer Lawrence’s strong and touching performance (Lawrence was deservedly nominated for best actress in Winter’s Bone). 

It is the future.  The “haves” live in splendor, wealth and fashion, while the “have nots” reside in 1 of 12 poorer districts, which, at some point, rebelled against the central authority.  As s punishment/control mechanism, the central authority conducts an annual Hunger Games, where 2 teens from each district are selected by lottery.  They are then sent to the equivalent of The Emerald City for training and gussying up as if they were to meet the great and powerful Oz.  Instead, they are offered up in an elaborate ritual, televised for the masses and announced by two Ryan Secrests (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones), wherein they are released in the wild to fight to the death.  Lawrence volunteers after her younger sister is chosen.  Traps abound, and aid can be given by wealthy viewers who “favor” their champion (for example, Lawrence is injured, but a patron sends her healing ointment via mechanical device as she huddles in a tree).  The orchestrator of the games (game master Wes Bentley and evil sage Donald Sutherland) can also tweak circumstances and change rules to amp interest and/or for political reasons.        

I was totally hooked, and the addition of a wisened and cynical Woody Harrelson as an advisor to Lawrence (he was a winner from her district and he is clearly scarred by the experience), as well as Lenny Kravitz as her charm/clothing consultant (the kids have to do a dog-and-pony show ala’ “American Idol” so the viewers get to know them) are substantial. 

The lack of background as to how a society engineering  these games came to be is problematic, and the film’s treatment of the powers-that-be is glancing.  There is also a fair amount of discomfort as you find yourself rooting for one child to kill another.  The New Republic’s Tim Noah high-handedly called it “morally repugnant” because the film “wants to have it both ways.  It wants us to register severe moral disapproval of a society that would require children to hunt one another as if they were woodland creatures. But—because it also wants to be an entertainment with a sympathetic heroine and some good old-fashioned suspense—The Hunger Games also invites us to root for the right person to win the competition by, um, killing other children.”  I think Noah is being a bit hysterical here, going overboard as to how the filmmakers want us to be repulsed by the concept of The Hunger Games.  He’s wrong; the games themselves are a brilliant vehicle so fantastical that having to expend energy on their moral condemnation is like insisting an audience object to Eastwood’s brutality in Dirty Harry even as he metes it out to the bad guys.  Who has the time to be so scrupulous?

But Noah identifies how the movie lets you off the hook by making a few of the combatants so loathsome you feel better about your bloodlust (“The nice (usually younger) kids, whom she tries to save, all get killed by others. The few she must kill are all nasty preppies apparently raised from birth to be smug, violent and cruel”).  

It would have been more honest to have Katniss kill someone neutral, if not sympathetic, but there are sequels to be had here.

Splash put Tom Hanks on the map as a leading man, though he was not yet filled-in and substantial.  Instead, Hanks was mannered in the way an actor can be after a long stint on a sitcom (Hanks was one of the Bosom Buddies from 1980 to 1982).  The film was also Ron Howard’s biggest feature, and its success would launch his career as the director of competent, workmanlike, earnest and generally dull films.

Hanks plays a love-phobic NYC businessman (derived from a childhood trauma – he fell off a Cape Cod ferry and encountered a mermaid).  In the depths of despair over his romantic failures, he returns to Cape Cod, falls in the water again, and is again rescued by the mermaid, now grown up (Daryl Hannah), who follows him to New York.  She is pursued by a cruel scientist (Eugene Levy), captured and probed to the point of sickness (ala’ E.T.) and then is busted out by Hanks, his brother (John Candy) and a repentant Levy.

Almost 30 years later, it’s a shock to see such a callow and obnoxious Hanks.  His voice is whiny, his character churlish and childish, and he seems too much the boy for the part, light as it is.  Perhaps because a mermaid has no experience with men, she just presumed Hanks was a good catch (ba-dump) but he is not.  He’s aggravating and surprisingly unfunny.

The same cannot be said for Candy, who steals the movie as the heavy, schmoozing, hard drinking,  yuk-yukking brother, excited to have one of his letters printed in Penthouse.  Levy is also good as the nerdly, bitter scientist, and Hannah is appropriately innocent and glowing as the fish-out-of-water.

It’s a cute movie, no more, but it ends in an uninentionally ridiculous fashion.  Hanks jumps in the water, making the choice to live the rest of his live with Hannah under the sea (he cannot, for reasons unexplained, ever return to land).  The credits roll and Hanks and Hannah swim the ocean as she shows him her world.  She has a big fin, he does not (when she was on land, when dry, she had legs and what goes along with them when they meet, and they were able to have a lot of sex).  Her world is murky and humdrum.  “See, this is the ocean floor.  And there is a conch.  And there are some fish.”  And what will Hanks eat?

Image result for Splash hanks underwater

“This was a poor choice.”

This is a meaty, engrossing crime picture, right in Martin Scorsese’s wheelhouse.  Jack Nicholson is a Boston crime boss who has a quasi-adopted son/mole in the Boston PD (Matt Damon).  In that same department, a small unit (headed up by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) is set up to get Nicholson, and they recruit a police academy trainee (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has one leg in the tough streets of Southie (his dad’s side) and another in the upper crust of Boston (his mom).  Meanwhile, a second task force, headed by Alec Baldwin, is also trying to get Nicholson and can’t get a handle on why they are thwarted at every turn.  DiCaprio is “erased” from police files, purposely gets arrested, and infiltrates Nicholson’s organization, which is populated by colorful, brutal goons (Ray Winstone, David O’Hara), in order to identify the mole.  Meanwhile, Damon keeps screwing Baldwin’s pooch.

A cat-and-mouse hunt ensues, as Damon searches for DiCaprio and vice versa.  Damon is also dating a psychologist (Vera Farmiga) who treats cops and ex-cons, including DiCaprio.

Almost to a person, the performances are rich and rough.  DiCaprio is now in full bloom, grown out of the Titanic baby face and having just previously offered two nuanced and substantial performances in The Aviator and Blood Diamond.  Nicholson is bloody and funny, and, well, Nicholson.

All the supporting characters are strong and natural save for Farmiga (she’s too feminine for the role and when she becomes infatuated by a clearly unstable DiCaprio, it is unconvincing) and Wahlberg, who, ironically, was nominated for best supporting actor.  He yells an awful lot and delivers a few speeches, but volume and line memorization do not deserve a nomination.  Wahlberg seems uncomfortable and masks it with rage.   And once again, Matt Damon does all the heavy lifting and gets none of the credit.  His turn as the fatherless boy who is being manipulated by Nicholson is alternately frightening and heartbreaking, yet he remains a very charming sociopath.

The picture whizzes by.  Scorsese effortlessly paces what could have been a morass of a story, providing his signature quick-cut expositions to perfectly chosen music (The Stones, Badfinger, Allman Brothers).

Clint Eastwood’s biopic is lovingly photographed.  Washington, D.C., and other venues, from the teens through the 1970s, are regal, warm and classic. Unfortunately, Eastwood has populated his pretty film with a dull collection of historical figures, none of whom have much to offer. Eastwood also mostly punts on the nature of Hoover, and as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the character is little more than a one-note old windbag, constantly going on and on about the same thing – the enemy within.  Eastwood’s vehicle for Hoover’s reminisces – Hoover is dictating his memoirs to an ever-changing number of aides- does not help.  As one is replaced, you can almost hear the jettisoned aide saying, “Thank God! What a snooze!”  Oliver Stone’s Nixon gave us a ridiculously lustful and evil Hoover, played by Bob Hoskins, but at least he wasn’t tedious.

Naomi Watts is wholly wasted as Hoover’s long loyal secretary.  Armie Hammer, as Hoover’s long loyal number 2 Clyde Tolson, does a poor version of a young Brendan Fraser (Hammer was last seen in The Social Network playing the Winkelvosses).  Judi Dench’s turn as Hoover’s overdoting mother is predictable.  Josh Lucas’s take on Charles Lindbergh is foggy.  In fact, the only decent performance is a brief appearance by Jeffrey Donovan as a trumped Bobby Kennedy.  Donovan thankfully avoids the standard “Haaaaaaaaahvaaaaaads” and “Baaaaaaahstons” endemic to the role.

Eastwood portrays Hoover as a repressed homosexual, no question.  Which makes Mom upset and Tolson bitter.   And Hoover seems most bothered by Martin Luther King because he overheard King having sex on a wiretap.  Not much of a motivation.  Eastwood even gives in to the dubious cross dressing story, but ennobles it because Hoover gets gussied up in Mom’s clothes after she dies.  Another punt.

Another problem.  DiCaprio’s makeup as an older Hoover is very good.  Hammer and Watts, however, look ridiculous, very similar to the characters in “Star Trek” when they age decades in hours.

“I love you, Edgar.”

Dustin Lance Black’s (Milk) script ends in treacle and nonsense.  Out out of nowhere, Hoover turns moralistic, the man who would stop . . . Nixon!  This prefaces a melodramatic conversation between an old Hoover and Tolson that is straight up “One Life to Live.” When Tolson, doddering in his ridiculous makeup, finds the dead Hoover, it comes close to bringing laughter.

At one point, DiCaprio asks Watts, “Did I kill everything I love?”

Oh if she’d said, “No Edgar.  That was Michael Corleone.  You just bored them to death.”

Two dumb Southerners vie for a North Carolina congressional district, one a Democrat (Will Ferrell), a randy Bill Clinton wannabe, and one a Republican (Zach Galifinakis), who is essentially Ned Flanders. But they are of the same bent, using appeals to God, country, morality, patriotism and the like to sway the voters, who, being Southern, are borderline mentally retarded.  After an unscrupulous campaign that features baby punching, grudge wife screwing and near-maiming, we are all served a lesson in civics.

There are a few very funny gags — Ferrell accidentally leaves a message for his mistress on a phone answering machine while an unsuspecting family is having dinner; Galifinakis uses a book (“Rainbowland”) Ferrell wrote in the second grade to suggest Ferrell is a socialist because, in Rainbowland, everything is free; the baby punching; and Ferrell’s tortured rendition of The Lord’s Prayer at a debate.  But much of it is derivative, either of earlier Ferrell vehicles or the fim itself.  Worse, Ferrell so over-relies on his own brand of wild man antics that you can feel the air release from the movie.  Quite something when it clocks in at a mere 90 minutes or so.  When Ferrell engages in the gibberish-spouting freakout scene, I’m reminded of the story about the late Chris Farley, who once shoved a pool cue up his own ass to get yucks. Ingenuity or desperation? You make the call.

To compensate, we get some political instruction, presumably from producer Adam McKay, who must actually believe that vehicles created for the delivery of fart jokes will also suffice for ideological lessons (he did the same thing in the seminal Ferrell pic The Other Guys, which ended with a primer on the evils of TARP).  In this movie, the Citizens United Supreme Court case is actually cited, and stand ins for the Koch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd reprise the roles of Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche from Trading Places) are wasted when provided with no funny material. There’s also much that is not funny, including a gag where an Asian housekeeper is made to talk black . . . again and again.

Otto Preminger skillfully presents Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning political potboiler (published in 1959), the story of  a senatorial nomination (Henry Fonda, who is tapped to be Secretary of State)  gone bad under the weight of McCarthyite tactics, vicious blackmail, and a dying president.  The story is intricate, but Preminger, ever the pro, handles it with ease.  For example, if there is an issue of senatorial procedure, it is cleared up in a clever discussion with foreign tourists, who receive a crisp and unobtrusive explanation as to parliamentary procedure and the role of the vice president in American government.

It is decidedly not an all-star cast, but it is a very good one.  Franchot Tone, as the tough and dissipated president, wields his waning power with as much vigor as he can muster.  He has a wonderful scene where first he tries to smooth-talk the chair of the subcommittee handling the nomination (Don Murray) into reporting it out and when the senator does not budge, his flash of anger is actually a little terrifying.  Walter Pidgeon plays the Senate Majority leader, tasked with shepherding the nomination through, and Charles Laughton hams it up wonderfully as the Strom Thurmonesque senator who opposes the nominee.  Lew Ayres, as the in-over-his-head vice president, is a perfect combination of insecure and decent.

Having been born in Washington, D.C., the shots of the nation’s capitol in a more innocent and uncluttered time are worth the viewing in and of themselves.  And look close, because Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) plays the Senate minority leader and Betty White also has a role in that august body.

Image result for advise and consent betty white

With only four films to his credit (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress) and all of them in the same milieu (upper class young people in comedies of manners), Whit Stillman is overlooked in discussions about the great American filmmakers who are still working.  Stillman has written and directed all four of his films, and all have been critically acclaimed, but his is a thin resume’.  

Regardless, Stillman has no bad films on that resume’,  a rare honor.  Paul Thomas Anderson comes close. Though the second half of Magnolia is bad, the sheer perfection of the first half of that film and its overall audacity generally gets him a pass.  Scorsese is a great, but Gangs of New York and Shutter Island are very, very bad films, and his later sycophantic rock documentaries are downright embarrassing.  Coppola has some late career dreck (Jack, The Rainmaker) and have you even heard of his last three efforts (Youth Without Youth, Tetro, Twixt)?  Eastwood has his share of humdrum work (J. Edgar, Bloodwork, Space Cowboys).  Try as I might to suggest otherwise, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic is not a very good film.  Even the Coens, David Fincher, Gus van Sant, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, and Steve Soderbergh have at least one dog (see A Serious Man, Alien3, Psycho, I Heart Huckabees, Bad News Bears, Solaris).

Woody Allen is closer to Stillman in style.  But Allen makes some really horrific pictures (though less so now that he’s not acting in them as much), redeeming himself with a great surprise just when you’ve written him off.  Take this list of Allen movies – Hollywood Ending (2002), Anything Else (2003) and Melinda and Melinda (2004).  All pretty bad.  Ballgame, right?  But then, Allen offers a smart Hitchcockian crime movie, Match Point (2005), and he is resurrected.  Two more sh** sandwiches follow in 2006 and 2007 (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream), but in 2008, Allen comes off the canvas again with the charming and seductive Vicky Christina Barcelona.  And last year, after another pair of clunkers (Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), the best original screenplay Oscar goes to Allen for Midnight in Paris, a movie I hated, but I defer to the Academy. 

Allen makes a lot of movies.  Stillman does not.  But neither have Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are). Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) or Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult).  That’s three 4 for 4s and a 5 for 5.  These are the Lynn Swanns of pictures.  Not lengthy bodies of work, but their few moments are unforgettable.

Barcelona, Stillman’s second picture, reprises two actors from Metropolitan as different characters.  Taylor Nichols plays Ted, a neurotic salesman in late 80s Barcelona. Chris Eigeman plays his cousin, Fred, a naval officer and freeloader sent ahead of the Sixth Fleet in the midst of a wave of anti-Americanism.  Both negotiate their acrimonious relationship, borne of childhood injuries inflicted by Eigeman, a truly obnoxious sort who, as a visitor, begins to stink after a day (unlike, as Nichols observes, the fish who takes three).  They discuss religion, women, anti-Americanism, sales, history and shaving, all the while falling in and out and in love with various Catalan women.

Nobody writes quite like Stillman.  His dialogue is distinct and erudite, but his characters have such a surface forthrightness that what could seem contrived comes out as wholly honest and fresh.  Stillman is particularly impressive in presenting a funny, incisive culture clash between the mildly ugly Americans and the bemused, mildly antagonistic  Spanish.  Both treat each other as curious and even hostile interactions over politics are amusing and revealing.

Ants reappear later in the film.

James L. Brooks has the ability to make you laugh out loud just before he brings a tear to your eye, a skill he has honed in Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets. His missteps (How Do You Know, Spanglish) still contain very funny dialogue, even if the whole doesn’t work.  But to be fair to Brooks, Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspooon, Adam Sandler and Tea Leone are not very formidable substitutes for Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, and Debra Winger.

In Broadcast News, Brooks melds a love triangle with a story about journalism and ethics that is prescient.  Holly Hunter is the producer of the Washington bureau of a major news network, Albert Brooks is a gifted but un-telegenic correspondent, and William Hurt is the new up-and-coming golden-boy, groomed to replace the current anchor (Jack Nicholson, in a hilarious cameo).  Hurt is attractive but shallow (as Brooks says, he is against everything Hunter is about).  But Hurt is also sweet and in his own way, genuine.  He fancies Hunter and when Brooks tries to anchor the weekend news in an effort to save his job, Hurt is there, giving him advice, some of which is excellent (“punch” a thought in each sentence) and some of which makes Brooks very uncomfortable (“Just remember that you’re not just reading the news, you’re narrating it. Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you, you know, you’re sort of saying, trust me I’m, um, credible. So when you feel yourself just reading, stop! Start selling a little”).  Hunter becomes infatuated with Hurt, and as they grow closer, Brooks professes his long love for Hunter and reveals the ethical threat that is Hurt.

The picture is loaded with crisp, witty dialogue, and at its best, it evokes the great Grant/Stewart/Tracy v. Hepburn romantic comedies.

Broadcast News also injects something of substance (the deterioration of the news), not with the acid cynicism of Network, but gently, so as not to get in the way of the story and humor.

There is also great physical comedy, provided by Joan Cusack as a gawky assistant producer, and Brooks, who endures the great humiliation of flopsweat during his shot at anchor.  The scene is one of the funniest in film history.

The film has one problem, but it is a big one.  Holly Hunter is so mannered and quirky that you simply cannot understand Hurt’s attraction to her, much less that of Brooks. Sure, the good looking neophyte might be intrigued by the neurotic but fascinating “other” ala’ Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.  But Hunter takes quirky up several notches, and in several scenes, her facial expressions approximate her work in the live cartoon Raising Arizona.  Her temper is so volcanic as to suggest mental illness.

Certain lines cannot be crossed in a romantic comedy.  I was reminded of the awful Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock vehicle Two Weeks Notice, wherein Bullock has an attack of diarrhea on the highway and Grant has to commandeer a stranger’s RV so she can relieve herself.  This may work for Will Ferrell and Zach Galifinakis.  But no romantic lead can be shown in such an unflattering light.  Hunter does not sink to such depths here, but her portrayal does border on the grotesque and that is the picture’s biggest issue.

There is also the weakness of the import of Hurt’s great journalistic sin (he recreates a moment of emotion in an interview) .  There is no question – the act was unethical.  But in the context of some of the other stagey and easy shortcuts engaged in by Hunter and Albert Brooks, their high dudgeon (which is critical to the picture) rings hollow, and the film never gives them a comeuppance on this point other than Hurt’s rebuttal to Hunter after she accuses him of crossing the line — “It’s hard not to cross it.  They keep moving that little sucker, don’t they.”